Archive for March, 2013

Rain, rain, go away

Posted in Nice at 14:18

Cessole, Hills

Like many places in the northern hemisphere this year, we have been having a very strange winter. Snow, sleet and hail not once, but at least four times, which for snow was never heard of before. Once is rare, twice almost never happens – four times?! Then there has been the rain. Endless, record-breaking rain. Several mudslides. I have a subscription to the Monaco-Monte Carlo opera again this season, and it’s been quite surprising to see so many train cancellations and warnings for mudslides. The earth here just isn’t able to soak up the quantities of water that have been dumped on it from the sky.

Thankfully, today the sun came out and even warmed us up a bit. I took the photo above this morning, after going to market.

Nice city center is getting a makeover: our mayor has made it historical, thus requiring buildings with façades in disrepair to be renovated. Along with the rain came a flurry of scaffolding, much of which is slowly giving way to newly-repainted buildings. It’s quite beautiful, can’t wait to see what all of them will look like once finished.

I’ve also been happy thanks to feedback from readers of Behind the Façades! It’s been read on at least three continents now, very exciting. For me the greatest reward in writing has always been to know that readers find something they relate to. Merci pour votre soutien !

Minimalist media center

Posted in Home improvement at 19:19

Minimalist media center

I do still geek around the house! After 13 years of mediocre sound systems, I finally treated myself to a new amplifier, a Pioneer A-20-S. As my apartment is rather small, I don’t need anything more powerful than 50W, and once I plugged it in – to the same old speakers I’d had for 6 years – the clarity and range brought tears to my eyes. I grew up with a nice old amp, and studied music for decades, so hearing detail I hadn’t in my favorite songs, was wonderful.

The only drawback was that with just an amp, I had to play music through my PC, which, as quiet as it is, is not silent. I started out trying to see if the multimedia element of my Freebox V5 would work as a media center, but it truly is meant as a TV receiver: sound would only go out one port, and it required the remote control to work via on-screen menus. In other words, if I had it hooked up to my monitor, sound would go out the HDMI port, not any others. If I hooked it up to my stereo, I wasn’t able to use the box, since I couldn’t see what the remote was doing. So I packed it back up and began pondering how I could create a small, silent, economical media center.

Finally I remembered the Raspberry Pi, a minimal, yet powerful, board built for educational purposes. Sure enough, there were a few options for turning one into a media center. All I needed was a USB external hard drive, which after all these years, I still hadn’t bought. As luck would have it, the Fnac (a big home electronics, photography and book store here) had a “flash” sale on a very nice LaCie drive, so I picked it up and started planning the media center.

In the end, I have the setup you see here! Elements I already had were:
– A monitor. Mine can use multiple inputs, so I have my PC hooked up to its DVI port and the Raspberry Pi to its HDMI port. (The graphics on the little Pi are very impressive.)
– The Pioneer amp, and speakers. Since the amp can also use multiple inputs, I have my PC hooked up to its AUX and the Pi hooked up to its Network inputs.
– An Archos 43 internet tablet running Android. I hoped to be able to use it as a network interface so that I could play music without necessarily having to turn on the monitor, for instance.
– The Freebox, which has a WiFi transmitter (my Archos could connect to that) and 4 Ethernet ports. My PC is hooked up to one, the Pi to another, my laptop uses a third, and the fourth is still free.
– The USB 3.0 external hard drive, to hold my music library (FLAC files ripped from my CDs)
– Ethernet, HDMI, USB and micro-USB cables

Elements I purchased, downloaded, and set up:
– Raspberry Pi model B + basic white case + SD card with the Pi Debian port on it, just in case.
– USB 3.0 hub with its own power supply, since the Pi isn’t powerful enough to run the hard drive. This cost nearly as much as the Pi, since it’s a newer standard. It’s much faster than USB 2.0, however, so I didn’t mind – and we’re only talking twenty-odd euros!
OpenELEC for the Raspberry Pi, on a separate SD card. This is the Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center that runs XBMC, a clean, UPnP-enabled (networked) media center. Free. Took ten minutes to install, another fifteen to set up. Works like a charm.
Yatse XBMC remote for my Android tablet.

You can see everything in the photo up at top! Clicking through to the Flickr photo will let you mouse over the photo and see specific notes, if curious. I’m delighted with it. The Yatse remote was as easy as knowing the XBMC instance’s IP address, and I can even turn my monitor off and view my music library from its interface. The Pi is completely silent, its sound very nearly as good as my PC’s. My PC has a nice Behringer USB interface that’s crystal clear, whereas the Pi is putting sound through its 3.5mm analog jack. I only have an old 3.5mm – RCA cable, so probably all I need to do is replace it with a better, gold-plated one and I’ll be fine. The Behringer interface doesn’t work on the Pi, unfortunately, but it’s nice to be able to switch sound inputs easily with the Pioneer amp’s remote, rather than having to plug in the PC or the Pi each time I change.

So there you have it! A minimalist media center, responsive and silent, as well as ecological since it uses very little power, all for 80-odd euros (Raspberry Pi + case + SD card + USB hub).